Crossing the Danube (again and this time much further down) I am in Bulgaria and (again) confronted with not only a new language, new currency and boarder controls but a new alphabet …
After talking to several boarder guards who act a bit suspicious of little moi on a bicycle … confused is more probable really … I cycle towards the first town on the map …. Ruse.
Since I am cycling and have no place for map or written info (I dislike the bar bag and map holder combo) I am trying to memorise signs that show in both latin and cyrilic for town centre (център) using memory aids …. “looks like fork …hate … BP (my brothers initials!!!!)” …. I have a whole country to devise similar aids!!!
Safely into town … money changed and the essentials of coffee and ice cream taken care of and I am hailed by a tall man in a Panama hat, shirt, shorts and I could be mistaken but aren’t those deck shoes!!! Enter stage left Andrew Anderson.
A totally amazing man … after quick introductions we arrange to meet for a beer … he goes off to sort out his errands and I buy a map of Bulgaria (some would say this is a little late in proceedings since I am in the country already) and chat to some of the women in the book shop before looking for the meeting place.
Turns out Andy cycled from London to Istanbul with a friend in the late 80s, has married a Bulgarian woman and settled in the country. I am immediately offered a place to stay in his currently tenantless house just beside where we are drinking our beer… its a scorching day and this is very welcome as I wont be going any further until the morning!!! Andys home is a few streets away and he shows me around the beautiful house he has been renting, strangely enough, to an English social work NGO.
After beer I am taken on a sightseeing tour of some truly beautiful town houses in the different areas of Ruse and then up to the city viewing point and battlements … Ruse is so much more than the Soviet style buildings I was expecting …. and this is how Bulgaria continued to be for me ….beautiful unexpected gems.
After Ruse I head directly across Bulgaria for Veliko Tarnovo, Andy has some contacts there but I am running behind my initial schedule … for some reason I am feeling a bit under the weather and am struggling with the cycling … the roads are making me quite anxious and in spite of following Andys initial escort out of Ruse the following day and his great instructions for some quieter roads, when I do inevitably reach larger roads the traffic and the trucks are terrifying ….Bulgaria has, hands down, my currently least favourite drivers coupled with narrow roads with almost not hard shoulder …. I am grateful I bought a side mirror in Romania (thank you Ludmila for being the voice of reason … better than nothing she said … how right she was).
Im camping out again in beautiful countryside, not far off the main roads and this is helping with getting an early start but not too much quality sleep … the trucks speed past through most of the night and even at a distance I can hear them … clearly.
Hmmm …. maybe I am over tired!!
Anyway … before reaching the town of Veliko Tarnovo I see an amazing rock monestry on the left of the road, up in the high cliffs … not a place I intend to go searching after as its very high and I am starting to feel like I just need to get through Bulgaria safely … when there is a sign for another monestry on my side of the road …. just after a hectic up hill, single lane, “no cycles allowed” sign dash …. rapid rethink, U turn and I’m heading up hill to the Preobrazhenski Manstir.
I had visited another rock monestary just outside Ruse … that one was actually in the rock, this one was a lovely timber housing structure with chapel alongside the cliff. I don’t feel the need to believe in anything specific to be touched by well whatever I need in these places … cycling and walking up was a great decision. The monestary was beautiful, small, only 5 other people there .. for a short time before leaving the place to me and an artist who was painstakingly cleaning the incredible wall art or frescos or friezes that totally covered the inside of the chapel. It was lovely to sit in the sun for a couple of hours having my lunch with the cats and feeling at peace … traffic a very distant thought and sound.
Too soon I had to get back on the road …. Im fighting the urge to sit down and not get up … just feel so low in energy… not at all my usual self…. I don’t understand it … oh well .. onward…
Reaching Veliko Tarnovo I am confronted with a beautiful old town perched on a cliff edge … the houses look like they will slip off at any second … its a beautiful town and I love the amount of street art there is on these old walls … especially love the squeeze box rock which makes me think of my Boatie friends … especially Egg (ah miss them!! xx).
I have arranged to stay in Sevlievo through Warm Showers but barely make it out of the town before putting the mental brakes on and turning into the countryside … I need a break and feel an early night camping would help so at the next village I ask a young woman where is ok to camp … she directs me to the river and a handy spot on the other side of the river that’s often used for camping ….
Only as usual it doesn’t work like that … 2 women from the village come down and are gesturing to me so, having splashed over once with Tilly I splash back to talk to the women … who are also talking intently on a mobile …. which is thrust into my hand and Im having a conversation with a Brummie in mid Bulgaria!!!
It turns out that Sarah and Neil Patstone Hickman and their 2 children relocated from Birmingham and have been living in Ledenik for a number of years, both boys speak fluent Bulgarian and they are all are so sweet and welcoming …. you must be tired after all that cycling says Matty … have a rest!!!! Wisdom not to be ignored ….
I initially just want to get internet connection so I can tell my WS contact that im ok but not going to make it there tonight … but im invited to stay in the house or camp in the garden … a solution the Bulgarian ladies approve of … they were worries about dogs and the river flooding.
So I collapse into their happy home for the weekend … its exactly what I need and at just the right time … there is something about this travelling that turns up important opportunities at the right time …. Sarah is great and we are able to have some lovely and really heartfelt chats about life …. I feel cared for … and realise again that there are times of loneliness doing this solo … its not a complaint just an observation and its hard work being navigator, captain, cook, brains and brawn all at the same time!
Sarah and Neil are not only working on their property and running a business they also take in stray dogs and especially pups, get them neutered and ideally rehomed … to manage some of the stray dog population … an indirect effect is the effect it is having on the local perception of these animals and their welfare ….. they are all doing an amazing job and the children are essential parts of the rehoming reintegration process for lots of animals …
After a lovely relaxing weekend I head off again … aiming for the Shipka Pass and Buzludza, which Sarah has shown me photos of ..
I spend a lovely night near the ethnographic complex at Charkovo, watching scores of fireflies dancing in the misty air … magical …. and sleeping in a comfy picnic shelter! Cycling up the road to the Pass is wet and misty but surprisingly low on traffic and Im ecstatic about this … once I reach the road for the Pass monument and the awesome view its just so misty and cold with visability of a few meters that I don’t bother …. I just head straight onto the next point, Buzludzha … stopping to give directions to a German Bulgarian couple (!!) via my map.
Again the road is cold and dreary and wet but no longer too steep so that’s good!!! The first indication that Im near the complex is a weird looking rock …. I round the corner and am confronted with 2 enormous rock fists holding torches alight …. for some reason I feel totally terrified and stand for what feels like 5 long minutes with my eyes squeezed tight shut and my fingers in my ears.
Its a strong reaction to a piece of carved rock and I confess I have a vivid imagination …. the mist the weather generally my tiredness … it doesn’t get any better when i actually see the building of Buzludzha towering several 100 meters above me in the mist.
Im all alone there no cars .. no other idiot appears to want to visit today … Buzludzha monument is on a pass near Shipka, built by the Communist Party in the 70s to commorate the final battle between Bulgarian rebels and the Ottoman Empire in the 1860s. The building is officially shut … its just got a hole in it large enough for a person to crawl through to gain entry.
Initially I sat at the bottom of the hill making tea for an hour or so trying to summon up the courage to walk up and go inside alone … its a bit of an internal fight but curiosity and stubbornness wins out … which I did and once inside discovered a group of 4 Americans also wandering the building …. its an eerie place especially in mist but amazing to see.
I get a lift back to Tilly with the Americans and head down the other side of the Pass towards Kakanluk, which has a famous gold domed Russian church, looking for a place to camp … I find a great tree with branches spreading to the ground and camp in the lovely space beneath it … looked like someone had camped there a few nights previous … tent shaped flattened grass!! The surrounding fields are full of lavender, I had no ideas it was grown in Bulgaria.
The next day Im feeling much better, more alert and the weather is great for cycling so I hot foot to Stara Zagora, taking in another enormous monument on the outskirts of the city en route in. I end up staying in a hotel with the most hilarious and fantastic manager, who insists I drink beer and Grappa with him and chat in German about my trip and about his football team, Manchester United. In the morning I visit some of the roman mosaics in the city and when I return for Tilly there is a newspaper reporter wanting an interview … called by the hotel manager who laughs and waves goodbye on his way to the dentist!! not sure what happened with the interview but the reporter and I had a nice chat!!!!
Its now a race for the Turkish boarder … Im excited and can feel some level of impatience to get there … however over the next 2 days Im aware of cycling across beautiful sunflower covered landscapes and on one occasion of a near miss when a trucks tyre exploded 50 meters after passing me on an uphill stretch ….. as I said to Sarah and Father Simeon in Romania, I have some luck on this journey!!! its not taken for granted!! My final Bulgarian adventure is to ignore the “road closed” sign 10 miles from the boarder and navigate the broken road surfaces and then rescue a small tortoise from the road! Seeing all the trucks queued up at the boarder is no issue for me so I go to the local petrol station to use up my remaining money but the men there wont accept it and insist I have a coffee on them!!! Caffeine fuelled and having organised a Warm Showers place for the night in Edirne I speed past men sitting outside their trucks, chatting and drinking tea and get straight into the boarder check point for Turkey!!